Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Laugh Is Nothing To Be Sneezed At

The problem with getting mad at the seemingly never-ending onslaught of remakes these days is being forced to admit that every now and then there are some good ones. Back in 1983 I’m sure that somebody was outraged that Mel Brooks had the audacity to remake an Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece, namely 1942’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE. At the time I had very little awareness of the issue since I wasn’t one of those kids who are experts on Lubitsch, like so many of them seem to be today. So I accepted and enjoyed that remake, only to take a look at the original years later and finally see what people were talking about. Watching the two of them now in immediate succession is an interesting experiment—actually, viewing two such versions of any film where the remake maintains such close, affectionate fidelity that compliment each other as much as these do is something I would recommend. How does it affect your opinion of the two films? Does the fact that I remember one of them from when I was a kid affect my judgment? How does the storytelling differ? It’s a good way to see how slightly different approaches can affect things and the reasons why you might prefer one over the other.

Set at the time of the 1939 invasion of Poland, each film tells the story of a theatrical troupe headed by a husband and wife team (Jack Benny & Carole Lombard in the original/Mel Brooks & Anne Bancroft in the redo) that through a variety of circumstances have to use all of their expertise to try to pull one over on the Nazis who are in the process of destroying their homeland. The other characters involved include a young Polish flyer who is infatuated with the wife (Robert Stack/Tim Matheson), Polish resistance leader Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges/Jose Ferrer) and the feared Col. Erhardt (Sig Ruman/Charles Durning) head of the Gestapo in Warsaw.

Upon its release in 1942, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (Story by Melchior Lengyel, Screenplay by Edwin Justus Meyer, with contributions from Lubitsch as well) was not particularly well received. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther stated that “To call it callous and macabre is understating the case,” adding that he much preferred a brief documentary on the R.A.F. that played with the main feature. The tragic death of legendary star Carole Lombard in a plane crash, only a few weeks after the completion of photography, was no doubt a factor in the response but a greater reason was certainly the fact that a comedic take on the Nazis at that point in time was not exactly looked at favorably. It wasn’t until later that the film began to be appreciated for the masterwork that it is. The famed Lubitsch Touch is something that I can only begin to understand and describe to someone not familiar with it but it certainly refers to the elegance the director brought to his films, the way the jokes sneak up on you in a quiet way while the story still manages to have a great deal of depth to it through those laughs. There’s also a great deal of brilliant plot construction that seems to have been forgotten about in recent years and what the director brought to his films deserves to be better known today. Peter Bogdanovich has recounted Jack Benny telling him that the star accepted the lead in the film when it was offered him without the slightest inkling of what the story was, saying that considering how many lousy directors he got stuck with on his films then if a director of Lubitsch’s caliber wanted him, “Who cares what the script is!” As a result, it’s the only film the great comedian is remembered for on any serious level. He’s very good in the role of Joseph Tura, particularly in the second half when the ultra-vain actor has to begin taking on other personas to help pull one over on the Nazis, but Carole Lombard is the one who is truly amazing and as Maria Tura has to be one of my favorite comic performances by an actress ever. The elegance she brings to it, the inner life she projects in every shot makes it perfectly believable why every single male in the movie falls for her instantly. The spin she continually brings to her already sharp dialogue is simply amazing. She has one line to Robert Stack’s flyer, who as leaving their first meeting says that it’s the first time he ever met an actress and she responds , “Lieutenant, this is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes. Bye!” That reads like nothing on the page but the loopy, thunderstruck way she says it makes it one of my all-time favorite line readings and it’s hard not to want to climb into the movie just to meet her. The film is filled with lines that you don’t expect anything from such as the runner of Benny’s vain star referred to as “that great, great actor” which pay off wonderfully. TO BE OR NOT TO BE—the title is used in the film as the special code for when Stack should exit the play to go backstage to meet Lombard, leading to, as Benny puts it, "What every actor dreads"--is endlessly rewatchable. The more serious elements of the story are of course there and while they’re not given short shrift, the movie doesn’t make a big deal out of them. In fact, they help to give added resonance to every joke in the film.

If someone who hadn’t seen the original for a long time watched the 1983 remake (Screenplay by Thomas Meehan & Ronny Graham), they might think it was closer than it really is. It’s not quite a scene-for-scene redo. More like a plot-stroke-for-plot-stroke sort of thing. The story is essentially the same (though the lead’s name is changed from Tura to Bronski, the name of a minor character in the original) and a fair amount of dialogue recurs throughout, even a handful of serious lines (“People are going to kill each other and be killed.”) But the remake takes a much broader approach to the material, inserting jokes where there didn’t used to be any and taking places where jokes used to be and making bigger, more obvious laughs out of them. The “great, great actor” runner is left out this time (a substitution is the line “He’s world famous in Poland,” which is funny, but a little more obvious) and there are numerous types of bits like Mel Brooks saying “Don’t look at me! Don’t look at me!” when he’s wanted to impersonate somebody, followed by the hard cut to him in full costume, shouting “Look at me!” in disbelief. Reaction to the film when it was released during Christmas 1983 was mixed although somewhat fittingly, in The New York Times Vincent Canby called it “smashingly funny,” while also making his admiration for the “brilliant” Lubitsch version very clear. I started to watch the remake as soon as I finished the original and with the extremely satisfying elegance of that experience still fresh in mind within a few minutes I was wishing for everyone onscreen to just calm down for a moment. It probably is funnier than the original since technically there are more jokes throughout, but the jokes that are in the Lubitsch version are more satisfying and so is the film. That’s not to say in any way that the remake is bad, it’s actually consistently enjoyable. Stylistically, it’s not even all that different—while camera setups may not be recreated the basic style of it feels pretty similar to how a film in the 40s would have been shot (though it’s in color, of course). The changes are mostly to amp up the comedy--it’s Brooks who dresses up as Hitler, which Benny’s character didn’t do in the earlier film and instead of a straight theatrical troupe, the Bronksi Theater presents this company as putting on a full revue which allows for musical numbers (including the famous rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” sung in Polish), a Hitler sketch (which plays like something that might have been on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS if the censors would have allowed it) and, to allow the Shakespeare element, has Brooks’s Bronksi featured in “Highlights from Hamlet” allowing the character to perform the soliloquy that kicks off the plot. Directed by Alan Johnson (choreographer of the famed “Springtime for Hitler” number in THE PRODUCERS) it’s very much in the style of an old-style Hollywood film. Much of it is presumably shot on a backlot and there are very few attempts to make the story bigger than it is. This doesn’t prevent the remake from adding a few elements, such as the plot point of the Bronskis being kicked out of their mansion to make way for the Gestapo (it’s not enough that the Nazis invade Poland—it’s gotta be personal!) as well as more serious subplots involving Bancroft’s gay dresser (James Haake) being captured to be shipped off to the concentration camp and persecuted Jews being hidden in the theater’s cellar worred about the same thing—this is something that never came into play in the original, no doubt because the full truth of these matters weren’t known at the time. It provides the film with an added threat though it doesn’t explain why Mel Brooks never seems to be in any direct danger from the Nazis himself. He’s not a Jew? This plot element helps the final section feature a ‘bigger’ climax including an airstrip escape. But none of this overwhelms the story—it’s always clear that the construction of the Lubitsch version is being treated with respect and affection. The various supporting actors playing the troupe that include welcome familiar faces like George Gaynes, Ronny Graham, Jack Riley, George Wyner and Estelle Reiner, make slightly more of an impression in this version than their counterparts in the original which gives things a slight Sturges feel as well. Even Tim Matheson as the young Lt. Sobinski gets more to play than Robert Stack does—Stack is very good, but his character feels like it gets lost in the second half. Jose Ferrer, in the key role of Professor Siletski is one of the elements that definitely seem to work better this time. Played by Stanley Ridges (star of the interesting Universal horror film BLACK FRIDAY) in the original, that performance winds up coming off as colorless next to Ferrer who is an excellent straight man and even gets a few laughs himself (particularly from some reactions to Anne Bancroft in one scene), though it never detracts from the basic seriousness of the character. Charles Durning, Oscar-nominated for this role, is almost too likable as Lt. Erhardt considering he’s a Nazi (“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Erhardt!”) but he’s consistently funny every moment he’s on screen, as is Christopher Lloyd as his lackey Schultz. Marley Sims, who I pointed out in my piece on HERO AT LARGE, briefly appears as well, playing the mother to Brooks’ own son Max, recently the author of the zombie novel “World War Z”.

Just as Carole Lombard became the best thing in the original, Anne Bancroft has the same effect in the remake. No, she’s not Lombard, just about the worst thing I can say about her, but she’s consistently enjoyable and funny, providing the film with more weight than it would otherwise have. Brooks isn’t quite as good an actor—just as Benny wasn’t as good as Lombard—but his coming timing is as sharp as always and besides, it’s Mel Brooks! I’m going to complain about his performance? Since this is one of the few occasions that we get to see the couple onscreen, it actually becomes more of a romantic comedy about marriage than the original film was as well and the chemistry they had in real life does genuinely come through. The 1983 version of TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a modest film, but it’s still extremely likable, very funny and awfully hard for me to dislike. It also knows enough to retain the classic closing gag, probably knowing that there would be no way to do any better.

If I had the opportunity to show someone a version of TO BE OR NOT TO BE it would be the original because that really is the classic of the two. A model of plot construction and delightfully unexpected humor, make all the more surprising by the subject matter it focuses on. In addition to exposing someone to the genius of Ernst Lubitsch, it would also give them a look at the likes of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard which wouldn’t be a bad thing either. But the Mel Brooks version of the classic remains extremely enjoyable over 25 years after it was released, a reminder that remakes aren’t always a bad thing and sometimes they wind up being made by people who are aware that there’s a reason why the material worked so well in the first place. So maybe there’s nothing wrong with keeping an open mind. That said, if you think I’m ever going to go see that TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE remake when it comes out later this year, you’ve got another thing coming.


J.D. said...

I always enjoyed the Mel Brooks remake for all the reasons you stated so eloquently. And you are right on the money about the chemistry between Brooks and Anne Bancroft, which is what makes the film so enjoyable to watch (well, one of the many things). I have always found that it makes a good double bill with the Zucker bros. World War II spoof, TOP SECRET!

Mr. Peel said...


Thanks very much. I've always enjoyed TOP SECRET! as well. Have you seen the original TO BE? If not, you really should check it out!

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